Anthony McFarland won’t be returning to the Steelers’ roster with a full-time role. But he will be adding a unique skillset in the backfield. On a team with a bunch of 215+ pound runners, Najee Harris, Benny Snell, and Kalen Ballage, McFarland’s agility and speed offer a potential wrinkle for Matt Canada. Activated off IR yesterday, Canada said Thursday they’ll look for ways to utilize his big-play ability.
“I do think Ant is a little bit different than our other backs,” Canada told reporters via audio provided by the team. “So as he continues to come on and then when and if we can get him involved, I think there is a difference in what he can do. As far as its impact, it’ll just depend if we call the right play at the right time.”
Under Mike Tomlin, the Steelers have typically coveted big, power backs. Rashard Mendenhall (5’10”, 225), Le’Veon Bell (6’1″, 230), James Conner (6’1″, 229), Benny Snell (5’10”, 224), and Najee Harris (6’1″, 232). Their ventures at adding speed failed, drafting duds in Dri Archer and Chris Rainey. Pittsburgh’s had a type and generally, it’s worked out for them. But McFarland is in the mold of a speed back while not being as small or inefficient as a between-the-tackles runner as Archer and Rainey.
During training camp, the Steelers regularly used Pony backfields with two running backs on the field, most commonly Harris and McFarland. With McFarland back in the fold and Pittsburgh using a bit less 11 personnel following JuJu Smith-Schuster’s injury, that’s one way for McFarland to see the field. But Canada recognized McFarland is trying to catch up on a moving train after missing the first six games due to a torn MCL.
“I think Ant’s injury came at an inopportune time for him and us. Some of the guys are kind of getting going and guys start getting experience. Reps are hard, plays are hard, margin of error is very small in this league. Where he’ll pick up, obviously we’re excited he’s back, we’ll see where it goes.”
It’s unclear what role and where in the pecking order McFarland will slot in this week. Snell and Ballage have done little to cement themselves as the #2 runners on this team. Snell is a quality special teams player while Ballage hasn’t shown much of anything in his first six games, playing just 57 total snaps – offense and special teams – despite being active every week. Despite the injury, there’s a cleat path for McFarland to become Najee Harris’ main backup.
Of course, McFarland himself has plenty to prove, a second-year player with 33 career carries, a 3.4 YPC average, with question marks about what he can offer in pass pro and on special teams.